The Specific Gravity of Architectures
The specific gravity of architectures means my own individual norm, not a general one like the specific gravity of gold. The specific gravity is my idea of things, a substitution of things with my images. Hence, an essay with this title is not a scientific dissertation on architecture. I'll present some of my thoughts and images, which are supposed to aim at what to me is specific about architecture. I am far from being able to offer theories, or even recipes for that matter. No theories because, after all, only the built architecture shows where you are, whether in the first or the fourth league. In between there is nothing, and yet, most of what exists in this country.
I'll try to say something about the situation during the '60s and '70s. I'll try to comment on the change that has taken place in the architectural scene during the last couple of years – a change which moves architecture (and the discourse on it) away from any substitute disciplines and closer back to itself and again seemingly closer to art. This subject is very important to me. More so, because art as well has shown decisive breaks since the late '60s. However, they don't come out quite as pretentiously as in architecture or the architectural sketches that are understood to be “artistic”. Indeed, the architect who claims this for his work moves further away from the work and the consciousness of the artist.
To me, the late '60s – an era I spent as a teenager in Basel going to high school – are closely linked with an idea of an expanding economy with many professional possibilities, with major highway construction, with the films of Jiři Menzel and Jean Luc Godard and Roman Polanski's Knife in Water shown in the Bon Film of the Royal cinema, with the first cigarettes and the first kisses. I regarded architecture as a kind of art made with the ruler; not so much the buildings that I was seeing on an every-day basis, but those I imagined in my mind. The buildings under construction in Basel at that time expressed themselves to me through their typical characteristics which could be encountered everywhere and which, with hindsight, I can isolate as genuine stylistic elements.
To me, the whole thing has always had a rectangular structural character, in thoughts as well as the built forms. I don't mean this in a negative sense, and besides, I am not for or against any epoch (I could, like many architects, have a special preference for, say, the '30s) – I am simply stating facts. It is the individually distinctive and, above all, emotionally distinctive aspects that are of interest to me. (The complete, correct and objective insight into these things – given it exists – is up to the architectural historians.)
Colorless anodized aluminum was definitely an important design element of the '60s. As were tinted glass facade panels, venetian blinds, and the rectangular and not very sculptural gestalt of buildings and interiors. However, a reference to Mondrian, as is often mentioned due to a superficial similarity of certain buildings of this time, is absurd. Houses and paintings can't be compared in this way. If, for example, I consider the relation of art to a bank building from the '60s, what comes to mind is the generously wide spaces, lobby floors covered with gray marble, director's offices with teak paneling and large paintings by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and perhaps ...an Yves Klein... totally blue – why not? And add to that a recent work by Helmut Federle and a strongly made-up secretary in the reception room. The window panes of these buildings were as yet untinted; the rooms already had air conditioning. The metallic bank and insurance buildings were foreign bodies in a town made of stone. It always upset me back then, and this feeling became stronger when I saw the cities of Italy for the first time. As a matter of fact, the presumptuous refusal – without emotion and consciousness – to integrate the new buildings into a relationship with the city's ground plan is an essential trademark of these architectures.
Another characteristic of the designs during the '60s and '70s was flexibility and variations of growth and need played through on the paper. This was especially true in the case of school buildings; the thinking took into account the development that would be needed with the presumed increase in the future population. Today, the first stages of these plans are visible in the landscape, mostly without hope for the additions that might allow a complete form to be recognized – not simply an idea of a plan, but an architectural one. The idea of building one complete structure and then adding others as needed was obviously beyond the imagination of that time, as was the idea that each house is something in and of itself.
The buildings that were erected in Switzerland up to the end of the '70s still show some of the essential design characteristics of the '60s, the difference being that the formal clarity and coolness of earlier times and somehow the “realness” – not in a moral sense but a stylistic one – is now “masked” with the winter mantel of the energy crisis which, in itself, has not yet brought about any interesting architecture (except for some little witch houses supplied with alternative energy). These “late sixties” of the '70s are also based on grids; however, often with “broken” edges. Aluminum is used as well, but only with warm anodized hues like gold or bronze, or with orange or brown enamel in all shades. And the windows are tinted.
The much-liked gray hue of the '60s was now thought to be cold and “monotonous”. It disappeared. Even the managers' suits were mostly brown and beige; shirt collars were wide and so were the ties. And long hair, once disdainfully associated only with hippies and artists, had become a self-understood attribute. Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote somewhere about this hair – the symbol of a generation and a kind of counter-culture until a new generation with different ideals and goals made it their own. Instead of in the air, the hair flew in the breeze of the air conditioner.
Somehow I prefer the gray managers (meanwhile, it has changed again to a more classical style, with a narrow tie and narrower pants) not as people, but as an image of the business world, because this image is more tangible and useful to me. I've never seen Gilbert and George wearing brown suits. And perhaps the '70s are simply not distant enough to be able to provide useful images.
I don't really want to draw conclusions about architecture from clothing fashion and also not about art, but somehow these things are there and they are visible, each house and who built it, each sentence and who said it. The video-artist Marcel Odenbach said in this sense: “There is a relationship; it can't be explained, but it can be told.”
During the late sixties, this time without images in architecture, Aldo Rossi and Robert Venturi – two totally opposite personalities – published their books L'Architettura della città and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; two books that became immensely important for the later development of the architectural scene. These books place architecture into the foreground of the architectural discussion: architecture is architecture and can be understood only from within itself and can be built only out of itself. To Rossi, the past – the history of the city – plays a decisive role. This term, totally foreign to the thinking in the architectural scene during the '60s, has only recently become a commonplace expression. Perhaps it is too commonplace, too non-descript in the way it is being used (similar to the long hair) in the course of time. What is a clever, culturally critical approach with Rossi degenerates more and more into mere fashion. Venturi also refers to historical architecture and iconography that range from the Porta Pia to the golden arches of McDonald's – the advertising world of the prosaic American landscape.
Back then, the primacy of sociology was still being taught at Zurich university, where I had enrolled in 1970 (Lucius Burckhard had the design professorship chair!), and it was customary to submit a written, typed thesis; the work of the architect was, above all, considered to be political-economic planning. In the mood of the finally interrupted, so-called “experimental phase”, which can be viewed in connection with the political development at universities since 1968, Aldo Rossi came to the university. During his three years of work there he influenced the education of a whole generation of architects. He, together with Dolf Schnebli, who had been at the university since 1970, spoke intensively about architecture. This was and still is an important point for the development of the Swiss architectural scene: the discussion on architecture has moved into the foreground.
Along with the development of the so-called post-modern architecture came a flood of designs and waves of publications. The designs are speaking in images of past architectures – architecture parlante – and establish relationships. To me, this establishment of relationships with certain architectures – especially with the Neues Bauen, which is considered and admired as the last unified movement in architecture – is one of the essential characteristics of contemporary tendencies. The designs are filled with contents – contents that are supposed to be deciphered within an architectural system of symbols.
I don't know exactly where this is all coming from, and I'm not looking for an explanation; however, I believe that I can find a few hints. If the art of the Zéro people (Klein, Fontana, Uecker, etc.) at the end of the '50s and in the beginning of the '60s was a reaction to an art movement that was overloaded with content (as the artist Alex Silber mentioned in an interview) and was void and a kind of structuralism on a sensual level, then the '70s seem to be a counter-reaction to that. The same image is apparent in the realm of music – and please allow me to digress. Roxy Music and David Bowie are strategic representatives of the polished and pretentious pop music that was loaded with content during the '70s. Recently, music has taken a new turn with punk rock and with bands like The Police and The Clash – its content is less weighty, but it is more emotional and direct. This applies to the fine arts, as well. Shows in the Kunsthalle Basel and the InK in Zurich make this clear – I'm thinking of Helmut Federle, Martin Disler, Urs Lüthi and the six Basel artists who had a very exciting show in the Kunsthalle about a year ago. The fine arts scene points towards the establishment of more direct and stronger relationships. In contrast, the architectural scene with its rationalistic advocates takes on an “attitude of explanation”. Bruno Reichlin, together with Martin Steinmann, has published sophisticated texts in which architecture is analyzed as a system of symbols. The process of design and the genesis of an oeuvre are illuminated. The technology of poetry emphasized in the works by Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Valery, Wladimir Majakowskij and others and the demystification of artistic work is applied to design. I once heard Marie Claude Bétrix speak about the design of a factory in Cortaillod (see archithese 1, 1980, page 48/49). This work is full of historical architectural references; the entire edifice seems to exist in words at the same time. I believe that it's a good building, but I don't have a good feeling about lavishing that much definition on one's own designs. They should stand on their own once they are realized. The only thing that really counts is what is architecturally there and what is communicated through architecture.
Perhaps this close relationship with existing architectures (factory architecture of the 19th century, Neues Bauen and normal architecture are favourite reference points), this “telling” where the colors and forms are coming from, is a remnant of the transparency in the planning which the socio-architects of the '60s were striving for. I don't know for certain, but I can see this attitude throughout the ranks of the more famous representatives of the architectural scene. In her lecture, Ulrike Jehle mentioned designs for the paper mill area in Zurich, which show close relationships with the architecture of the '30s in her “iconography of the ship”. For our work, the ship as an image is important, too, as the bath in Riehen and the studio Frei document. But the design does not stick that closely to an idealized model. Architecture shouldn't obtain its life from an idol. References to the history of architecture may be interesting, but the question that seems much more important to me is this: What kind of a new whole results from the applied stylistic means?
In the case of our design for Riehen, they produce a specific mood of bathing (which may have something to do with Rheinbadhüsli) – a large, wavy form (which may have something to do with the body of a large fish) with long, straight building volumes that consider the topography of the landscape. With this I mean that the whole is a thing, receiving its quality through its existence on the building lot and in the landscape that – hopefully – is enhanced by the details; a thing that is somehow influenced by references to existing architectures (which can already be detected in a scale of 1:200), not in the sense of architectural historical references to a certain epoch, but rather in a more emotional sense, alluding to the images and experiences of our generation. All of this is not new, and it is not necessary that it be new. Many architects work in this way. I want to try to learn something about us, about our generation.
I believe that architecture evokes in us memories of our own life, but hardly any memories of the history of architecture. I believe that its effect is more subjective and quite often more unconscious. Jean-Christophe Ammann doesn't say that the paintings by Anselm Stalder refer to the neo-functionalism. He says, rather, that Anselm Stalder uses certain stylistic elements, if you wish, from different epochs. To me, for example, there are elements of the '20s and ‘50s (colors, clothing, ornaments). However, they are used as materials in order to make certain statements and represent certain experiences – fear, cold, etc – in order to paint his new own image.
The photograph of the architecture of the '60s clarifies what I mean with reference to architecture. It shows a bland, cold world, a world of business, of insurance, etc. Such images emerge and such emotional references arise when we consider the design of a building for a bank or an insurance company – as has long been our wish, although the choice of stylistic means – here the '50s and early '60s – would have the purpose of establishing references to the architectural history of that time. They are images that are linked to experiences and therefore, in a specific context, they make precise statements. Probably our bank building would look totally different. I am speaking of it only as an example for how I try to use images.
I think that for many architects – as for us – their works are a means of “getting closer to themselves.” They are “individual landing sites”, as Alex Silber once expressed it. Creating such landing sites seems to me an important characteristic of our generation: this applies, for example, to the paintings of Alex Silber, Vivian Suter and Anselm Stalder. I mention them because the relationship of architecture and art is an important theme to me. I view architecture, in terms of attitude, as being analogous and yet clearly distinguishable from art by virtue of the different preconditions of each discipline. What stands for the quality of a work must be seen and searched for within these preconditions.